Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell

By Brian Summerfield, Online Editor, REALTOR® Magazine

Money TalksFamed investor Sam Zell, who made his fortune in commercial real estate, is part of the same billionaire genus as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates. Most people tend to view him as either a hero or a tyrant, with very little middle ground in between. This controversial figure has been in the headlines quite a bit over the past couple of years after he bought the Tribune Co. (which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times) and sold the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field (which were owned by the Tribune Co.).

(Disclosure: My wife worked at the Zell-owned Equity Residential for about a year, and even met the guy once at an office Christmas party. He also has an office in the Tribune Tower, which I’m looking at through the window of NAR headquarters as I’m typing this. Sometimes we wave to each other from across the street. OK, I made that last part up.)

Anyway, there’s little doubt as to whether Ben Johnson, author of Money Talks, Bullsh*t Walks: Inside the Contrarian Mind of Billionaire Mogul Sam Zell, falls into the superstar or villain camp. His book about Zell’s rise to power and navigation of complex business deals frequently borders on hero worship (though, to be fair, this is toned down somewhat as Johnson recounts the Tribune deal).

Is Zell a wildly successful businessman because of his inimitable, analytical mind, or because of his doggedness and determination? That’s the kind of conundrum that Johnson seems to present to the reader throughout the book — rather than, for instance, how can someone who is such a fierce competitor hate actual competition so much? (Zell is quoted as saying, “The best thing to have in the world is a monopoly … I’m more than willing to leave all the rest of the highly competitive world to everyone else.” It would be like Tom Brady saying, “I love winning Super Bowls, but I hate playing football.”)

Still, even if Johnson doesn’t explore some of these more interesting and challenging aspects of Zell’s career, the book does contain some lessons for real estate pros who want to learn more about the traits and ideas that helped him find success. And it does share a title with a classic AC/DC song, so it’s got that going for it.



1. Vision is more important than avoiding mistakes: Success begins with having a clear idea of where you want your business to go that’s grounded in sound market principles. It’s a given that things will go wrong from time to time, and sometimes it will be your own fault. But it’s important to keep looking ahead toward your goals. As Stanley Ross, chair of the University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate, said of Zell: “He is a visionary. It doesn’t mean he’s right every time, but he’s a visionary.”

2. Never get complacent: If you reach one of your goals, don’t stop. Have another one ready to aspire to so you don’t slow down and become self-satisfied. Zell defines a fool as “someone who has reached his limits… whatever goals you set, you need to constantly readjust them so that at no time do you reach your goals before your time is up.”

3. Know the property you’re buying or selling: This one’s probably fairly intuitive for most real estate professionals, but it’s important to be familiar with the property involved in a transaction, to know its features, advantages, and flaws. Before Zell purchased Rockefeller Center in 1995, he spent hours walking the property. As a result, he discovered qualities in the building that the previous owner (Mitsubishi Corp.) and other bidders had not fully appreciated.

4. See value where others don’t: As with Rockefeller Center, Zell found success in investing in properties, companies, and industries that other people didn’t think were all that lucrative, such as mobile-home developments and shipping crates. In this sense, he was (and is) a “value investor,” a term that’s also been applied to billionaire Warren Buffett. Similarly, some canny real estate pros may be able to tap segments of the market that their peers are overlooking.


“In 2007, the view of home ownership began a sea change,” said Zell. “While it remains part of the American dream, it is now being coupled with a desire for reduced real estate costs, capital preservation and financial security. A three-bedroom, two-bath home that averages about $80,000 in our amenity-packed resort communities in Arizona, Florida or California is the new paradigm that we think will appeal to the 25 percent of Americans who are either part of the Baby Boom generation, empty-nesters or already retired. The quest is for high quality but low cost alternatives in desirable retirement and vacation locations, where they are surrounded by family and friends. The movement is toward communities of like-minded people that stress a lifestyle based on social interactions and friendships. The generation that worked hard and accumulated wealth is now ready to turn that same energy into filling their lives with meaningful personal connections and a strong social fabric, without financial strain.”


Ben Johnson first encountered Sam Zell while leading two of the real estate industry’s most respected trade publications, National Real Estate Investor and Shopping Center World. He previously directed the custom publishing division at American Airlines, ran a division of real estate research firm CoStar Group, and was the director of marketing for Wells Real Estate Funds. He lives in Plano, Texas.

Brian Summerfield

Brian Summerfield is Manager of Business Development and Outreach for NAR Commercial and Global Services. He can be reached at

More Posts

  1. Hello,

    Besides being a commercial real estate Broker, I buy and sell business opportunities. A couple of years ago I bought Studebaker Motor Comany, and now I am the President and CEO of Studebaker Motor Company. Just thought I’d introduce myself.

    If you know of any billionaires who have an interest in investing money into someone who is a “Vissionary,” hey, have them give me a call.

  2. Hi, the title moneytalks caught my eye and I can relate to that, money does talk? But what is it saying? It depends on whether you think your galss is half full or half empty. I believe it is half full and will soon be over flowing. Don’t miss the value of the little things in life by always looking at the bigger ones. I’m looking forward to a wonderful 2010.